World Cup Blues

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

“The people are hungry for more than just food. They crave distractions. And if we don’t provide them, they’ll create their own. And their distractions are likely to end with us being torn to pieces”.

Olenna Tyrrell (sadly, she is fictional)

It seems rather poetic that nationalism and football took shape around the same time (the middle of the 18th century). It is debatable which of the two inspires more frenzy, fervour and fraught. The two forces will meet in Brazil this Thursday and will have an almost magical effect. In one fell swoop they will expunge the collective bile from the protests, corruption practices and unfinished projects that have accompanied the 2014 World Cup preparations. Why? What do these controversies tell us about the current state of Brazil?

Opium of the People

International sporting events have been compared to a benign form of war: they carry all the excitement and patriotic exhilaration of war but with slightly less infrastructure damage. Like a declaration of war the news of a successful bid to host the World Cup (or Olympics) follows several predictable stages. First, there is an initial drunken exhilaration of the announcement. Then people suddenly realize what they have got themselves into. Nothing seems to go according to plan. Altercations ensue. The people in low positions blame their superiors/politicians for the whole mess. More and more question the reasons and benefits of the whole enterprise. There may be some insubordination among the troops. In the end, there would be an acceptance of the fact that is best to support your team and country. Nationalistic emotions would prevail and justify the whole endeavour.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa followed a similar template: initial joyous celebrations, then panic about deadlines and uncompleted projects, reports of corruption, mass protests that subsided once the actual games began. Hosting the World Cup for Brazil is a rather expensive signal that the country is worthy of its status as an emerging power. Its citizens are willing to forgive a lot of blunders for the prestige of hosting a tournament of such importance. That is why I am not particularly worried that there’ll be much disruption during the actual games. Plus, football is opium for the people of Brazil.

What do the pre-World Cup controversies reveal?

The main purpose of sporting events like the World Cup is to present the host country in a very positive light to the outside world. A recent Pew poll revealed that 75% of Brazilians believe their country should be more respected abroad. So the host cities try to put a temporary disguise and sweep the ugly realities under the rug. But there’s a problem perfectly put by a certain TV character: “Do you know the big problem with a disguise? However hard you try, it's always a self-portrait”. The preparation for a huge sporting event like the World Cup is far more revealing of the country’s character than the games themselves.

So let’s look at the important events that have accompanied the World Cup preparations. Most noteworthy is the exorbitant price of the World Cup ($11, 7 billion as of September 2013) that went three times over the projected cost. The cornucopia of corrupt practices between politicians and contractors is largely to blame. There is also the problem of not-quite-finished stadiums and abandoned projects. By the end of 2013 six of the Brazil’s twelve stadiums did not meet the deadlines set by FIFA.

There are also concerns about the poor or unfinished transport infrastructure and its questionable ability to handle the influx of tourists. Add to that the high-crime rate and the prospect of disrupting protests. In the end, these controversies reveal an overly ambitious country plagued by corruption, high crime rates and uneven infrastructure.

The Problem with BRICS

In the last half dozen years we have seen four of the BRICS countries host the biggest international sporting events: 2008 Olympics in China, World Cup in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014), and Winter Olympics in Russia (2014).

These sporting events and the controversies that preceded them show the uneasy position of the BRICS. On the one hand they have an abundance of resources (both natural and human) and even more potential but lack the infrastructure and properly functioning institutions of developed economies. Like Russia and South Africa Brazil will probably deliver a dazzling opening and closing ceremonies but there would most likely be many reports of poor infrastructure, lack of transport and communication, and unsatisfying living conditions. We’ll call this problem of duality “the pauper-prince syndrome”.

Brazil is the epitome of these contrasts – it is one of the top countries by income inequality (far more than Russia, China or India). Only South Africa can give it a run for its money. In fact, Brazil has the very rare distinction of encompassing the entire spectrum of global income: the world’s richest, poorest and whatever that is in between. So while Pele and Ronaldo were promoting the tournament teachers, bus drivers and oil workers went on a strike. While the official World Cup song with Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull was blaring the Landless Workers Movement marched and tried to occupy the land around a stadium. These stark contrasts will weigh down on the future development of Brazil.

Will Brazilians ultimately benefit from the World Cup?

I believe so but in the form of a rude wake-up call. The remarkable development of Brazil since 1990 with strong economic growth, pronounced increase in education attainment, and steep reduction in poverty, made Brazilians and their leaders overconfident. Deciding to host not only the World Cup but also the Olympics (with only two years in-between) would challenge even the most developed of nations. The double-challenge revealed the numerous problems of Brazil that were neglected due to upward trending statistics and the accompanying feeling of progress. The controversies vividly demonstrated to Brazilians that their country still has a long and bumpy road ahead if they want to realize their lofty ambitions.